Baton Rouge – Louisiana’s chief oil response leader says it could be November before Unified Command puts any of the thousands of alternative cleanup products to work in an effort to protect Louisiana’s wetlands from BP oil.
Dwight Bradshaw, Incident Commander for the state Department of Environmental Quality and the department’s senior environmental scientist, told Beyond Horizon that it would be futile to attempt any valid tests now.
“Now is not the right time to do it. You wouldn’t get a valid test, you’re just throwing something out there and you won’t have any proof scientifically (that it works),” said Bradshaw.
When asked repeatedly for a timetable, Bradshaw said sarcastically, “You tell me when they’re gonna plug up that well.”
Asked if he was being facetious, Bradshaw responded, “nope, it would be meaningless.”
When asked how long from the moment the well is capped to the first day that field tests will happen, Bradshaw said, “two or three months for a meaningful test.”
Billy Nungesser, Plaquemines Parish President, was shocked by Bradshaw’s statement.
“What? You’re kidding, right? That’s just ridiculous. You know, this is just one more thing, one more roadblock. DEQ has been in the way from the start and I thought, perhaps, after our meeting last week that we were making progress. But, this shows that it was all just for show,” Nungesser told Beyond Horizon.
Nungesser, in addition to fighting – and succeeding at securing BP financing for sand berms along Plaquemines’ shorelines – has also been fighting BP, the DEQ and the Coast Guard to give smaller companies with alternative products a chance at securing contracts for cleanup.
“I want to try everything. I’m open to everything. So far, nothing BP’s done has worked,” he said.
In early May, when the federal government deemed the disaster a “spill of national significance,” EPA Director Lisa Jackson told BP it was “pre-authorized” to use any chemicals/solutions on the National Contingency Plan’s product list that were less toxic than Corexit.
Bradshaw, however, told Beyond Horizon that “every last one” of those products must be field tested before they can be used to treat Louisiana’s wetlands.
Asked if he gave any weight to the EPA’s screening of products and Jackson’s green-lighting at least 12 less toxic products for use,” Bradshaw said, “Nope, that list only gets you in the door for consideration.”
Irving Mendelssohn, a biologist at the LSU Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences, agrees with Bradshaw on some points, but disagrees that scientifically valid field tests could not be conducted today. In fact, Mendelssohn said he was hoping to do some field site work in the next week or so, possibly in Empire, La.
Mendelssohn said while there could be problems with conducting valid field tests today it should not force DEQ or anyone with Unified Command into waiting months after the well is capped.
“You could create a valid, controlled environment now… even before the spill is stopped,” Mendelssohn said. “But there may be some problems – if you do a field test then that same marsh gets oiled again.”
Skepticism Over Miracle Cures
DEQ’s Bradshaw expressed skepticism that many of the products being touted by entrepreneurs from around the world could help. In fact, he suggested many were just carpetbaggers trying to make a quick buck.
“Do you know how many of these companies who want to save Louisiana were started in May 2010? A lot,” he said.
Bradshaw said “these people … are willing to sacrifice the marsh because ‘this is green, this is wonderful stuff, we need to go ahead and use it.’ Well, we don’t know what damage these products might do to the marsh.”
Nungesser said his hometown has little to lose by not trying alternatives to products with the BP seal of approval.
“Well, (BP) sure haven’t proven to me that they know what they’re doing,” said Nungesser.
Mendelssohn said that overall many of the “surface washing” agents listed in the NCP product list remain unproven.
“There has been some research done that shows that some of these shoreline cleaners had little to no effect on the plants that were being cleaned and the marshlands that were being cleaned,” he said.
State law requires that anything other than physical removal of the oil must be vetted by DEQ. “You have to get prior written approval from the DEQ office of compliance,” Bradshaw said.
So, how many companies have submitted products to that office for review?
“Nobody has submitted anything to us asking for that yet,” said Bradshaw.
“They’re all trying to use political pressure to get their product used – all of them do that – they’re trying to go through the political process not the scientific process.”
Asked for documents that outline the steps necessary for companies to have their products tested and possibly put to work in the marshes via the DEQ Office of Compliance, Bradshaw said, “I don’t know that we have an actual document that actually describes (the process)”
Mistaken Race Against the Clock
While politicians across the state and environmental activists have complained about a lack of urgency in the response, Bradshaw says the belief that we must act now is one based on emotion, political showmanship, and not science.
“You’re operating on the assumption that we have to go out and apply something to it, or the oil’s gonna kill the marsh … it’s not gonna happen,” said Bradshaw.
“It doesn’t happen as long as you get out there and get it out of the marshes … and you don’t damage the marsh while you’re doing it. Once you get that gross oil up the marsh will come back just fine.”
LSU’s Mendelssohn agreed that the marshes can survive, but that leaving the oil for months might not bode well for fish and wildlife.
“Because of the viscous type of oil that this is after the weathering it doesn’t appear that the oil should get into the soil much. The oil cannot displace that water,” Mendelssohn said.
Both scientists claim in situ burns likely are the best method to restoring the wetlands.
“There are certain systems that are adaptive after a fire. Fire is used in the management of wetlands for a number of reasons,” said Mendelssohn. “It’s used to reduce all the fuel load that can build up and it’s also used to produce new chutes.”
Mendelssohn’s expertise is in the wetlands specifically – in the sediment and the indigenous plants that call it home. Just what impact leaving the oil for months, then conducting a burn might have on animal and marine life is another question, he said.
“That doesn’t mean that if the oil comes in and coats crabs, nests for birds, other mammals … that it won’t be harmful,” he said.
Bradshaw said the state’s wetlands have recovered from countless oil spills, including the 44 documented spills that took place during the 2005 hurricane season.
Bradshaw said after the well is capped DEQ will select the appropriate sites and create a controlled environment to conduct the tests, eliminating any variables that could skew the results.
“It’s just which way the wind blows right now with a lot of oil flooding the surface. What’s the point of trying to evaluate something if you can’t evaluate it accurately. I’m not averse to testing these , but to do a valid test you need controlled conditions to test it. You’re just spinning your wheels if you just throw something out there,” he said.
In many cases, said Bradshaw, the application of the products will displace water and further damage the marshes by giving the oil a better chance at infiltrating the sediment and indigenous life.
“When you have oil on top of the water, the water between the oil and the root system protects that root system,” he said. “That’s why we don’t use dispersants in-shore, because we know it will have a negative effect in water … and instead of saving the critters living on the bottom it could kill them.”
Bradshaw said people just don’t get how complicated this cleanup effort is.
“Most people don’t have that much knowledge of how we clean up oil spills. This marsh cleanup – most people will never see it, part of the problem is that it’s not real exciting to watch,” said Bradshaw.
“This is not my first oil spill, this isn’t my first rodeo.”
Mendelssohn said the experts have learned at least one thing over the years.
“What we know now about oil spill cleanup is that it’s an exercise in tradeoffs. You have to make some (difficult) decisions,” he said.
Lou Rom, an award-winning journalist, with over 2,000 articles published, hosts Lou Rom Live weekdays from 4-6 pm on KVOL1330. Contact him at [email protected]